MMA: Imagining a Future Where the UFC Co-Promotes for the Good of the Sport

Levi Nile@@levinileContributor IIIOctober 22, 2013

Oct 19, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Dana White speaks during the press conference following UFC 166 at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

For as long as there has been a microphone in his face, Dana White has been telling anyone who would listen that the UFC is going global. It has always been a fundamental point to his argument that MMA will be the biggest sport in the world eventually.

As the premier organization in the sport, the UFC has long been seen as Fort Knox when it comes to the size of their talent roster and the money available for fighters. Other organizations, like Bellator, may have money and exposure, but they don’t have the legacy the UFC enjoys; that brand name that everyone knows.

And so, with all eyes on the UFC, fans watch and wait as new fighters show up, eager to establish their name and achieve greatness.

For their part, the UFC seems to be a perpetual motion machine when it comes to cultivating new talent. Very soon, Frankie Edgar and B.J. Penn will be coaches on The Ultimate Fighter 19, and there doesn’t look to be any end in sight.

As the UFC continues to gather into themselves the spoils of their partnership with Fox, one might believe that the company could employ thousands of fighters on a consistent basis, simply by staging more events. After all, for a company that wants to conquer the world, it would seem they would need a few thousand soldiers to do it.

But recently, White made a shocking admittance that speaks to the reality of the situation (h/t Steven Marrocco via After UFC 166 in Houston, Texas, White said that the UFC’s talent roster was just too full.

“Our roster is too full,” he said. “Guys have to get fights.”  

Yushin Okami, former UFC fighter
Yushin Okami, former UFC fighterGary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

This admittance was aimed to clarify why the company seems so quick to release fighters these days. There have been many big-name fighters who were given their walking papers over the past year, including men like Jon Fitch and Yushin Okami.

And for every fighter released, there is a certain amount of public backlash.

“Every time after a show, we cut a guy, and they’re like ‘F--k you, Dana White. You’re an idiot. This guy is…’ —shut the f--k up. Let us run our business. The roster’s too full, and we want to be good to the guys that deserve to be good to.”

It’s certainly a very wise thing to do, but it is a little shocking. Perhaps White has spent so long looking like the Cesar of Rome that we (we being me) believed he had the means to sustain an empire equally vast.

So goes the way of assumption.

In truth, no one should be surprised. As much as White and others would like to believe they are the be-all and end-all of the sport, MMA is bigger than any single organization.

White has often referred to other organizations as farm leagues, but that will not always be the case. If the sport continues to grow over the next seven years as it has the past seven, the UFC is going to have at least one more rival nearly equal in size and credibility. There will simply be too many quality fighters out there for the UFC to employ, especially on a global scale.

The UFC will have absorbed a good number of them, but many will remain outside the Zuffa umbrella because as we have now learned, there is only so much room under their banner.

But the rest of them won’t have to wait in the rain for long. As long as there are fighters willing to fight in front of a crowd, there will be promoters and organizations there to put them on as big a stage as possible.

And when that happens, we just might—just might—see the UFC begin to co-promote with the competition.

Dana White
Dana WhiteTom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

To even say it right now seems silly. White and Zuffa have been so vocal about their policy against co-promotion that it seems as if they view it as a sin.

The last time they were open to the idea, they got burned by Pride FC. The UFC sent Chuck Liddell over to Japan to compete in the Pride middleweight Grand Prix in 2003. Pride was supposed to return the favor and send over some of their fighters to the UFC, but they never did.

Now, as the biggest and best organization in the sport, it simply doesn’t make sense for the UFC to co-promote; to do so would be like feeding the enemy.

But I keep coming back to one thing White said: “Guys need to fight.”

As dogged, abrasive, aggressive, inflexible and unforgiving as White can be, his biggest fault may also be his best virtue: he really does care about the sport.

He’s always been so dead set on trampling the competition that he rarely allows himself to take off his combat boots. Yeah, he can be rude as hell, but those with passions are rarely passive, and if we know anything about White, he is passionate about the sport.

When the day comes that the amount of quality fighters well outnumbers the resources of Zuffa, I think it is very possible that we will see the UFC co-promoting with other organizations, for the good of the sport.

Global expansion begins with a plan and a great deal of hard work. It can be achieved on a manageable scale, or it can take off like a wildfire. All that is needed is an unforeseen catalyst, like we almost had before the Olympic committees decided to reinstate wrestling into the games.

Had they not done that, then there would have been a vast number of Greco-Roman and freestyle wrestlers left with no big stage to showcase the skills of their lifetimes' ambition—to wear championship gold and represent their country.

The UFC and the sport of MMA would have looked very appealing to many of those displaced and disillusioned men and women. As they used to say: “A man who knows how to use a sword never starves,” so too for skilled men and women who fight—they never go without a home for too long.  

The UFC could have employed some of them, but not nearly all.

Now, imagine the surplus of Olympic-level wrestlers coming out of Russia (for instance), left looking around for a place to ply their trade. A great many of them would be signed to a promotion like M-1, which has a respectable position in Russia and parts of Europe.

Aug 12, 2012; London, United Kingdom; Jacob Stephen Varner (USA) and Khetag Pliev (CAN) compete in the men's freestyle wrestling 96 kg quarterfinals during the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL - North Arena 2. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kryger-USA TODAY Spo
Matt Kryger-USA TODAY

Now, indulge in this possibility just a bit further. Imagine one of the M-1 wrestlers is the next Alexander Karelin—the kind of monster who had the skill and power to toss Brock Lesnar around like a rag doll.

The UFC wants to see him inside their cage and M-1 wants to see their name grow into markets outside of Russia. So, instead of repeating the fiasco of their last meeting with the UFC, M-1 offers to give the UFC an inroad into Russia, and use of their Karelin-ish fighter in exchange for whatever as long as it is seen as a UFC/M-1 venture.

As the UFC has all the fighters they can handle under contract, doing a co-promotion suddenly benefits them in the face of such a sudden flood of talent. They get more than just a toehold in Russia; they get to develop a working relationship with the next big fighter without having to absorb the financial burden all on their own.

All it would take is just one good working relationship to see an acceptable business model for co-promotion set into motion. From there on out, the status quo is set and all other co-promotional ventures could be built upon the structure and the strengths of the first.

Obviously, this ideal requires some sacrifice on both sides, but when the needs of the sport are far greater than the resources of any one organization, a certain level of flexibility would serve the needs of the sport.

And as the sport thrives, so do the promotions involved; the fighters get the fights they need and the fans get to see the matchups they want—the best fighting the best. Right now, nearly all the best fighters are in the UFC, but that was not always the case, nor will it always be the case in the future.

For now, the UFC will continue on as it always has and the other organizations will subsist on their own fighters and those released from the UFC.

But in the future, MMA may grow to the point where co-promotion isn’t a sin, just another tool to serve the fighters who serve the sport so passionately.


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